BHSU News & Events

Summer science program promotes Native American interest in STEM fields

 
 Four Black Hills State University students recently participated in in a week-long science program. Students include, from left to right, Ida Clarke, environmental physical science major from Oglala; Katerina Griffin, biology major from Sheldon, Iowa; Lindee Lawrence, biology major from Eagle Butte; and Anna Hafele, outdoor education major from Newell.
 
 BHSU students Anna Hafele, outdoor education major from Newell, and Lindee Lawrence, biology major from Eagle Butte, collect specimens of the plant Pyrola picta with Dr. Benjamin Van Ee, assistant professor of botany.
 
 Dr. Benjamin Van Ee, assistant professor of botany, watches while Ida Clarke, environmental physical science major from Oglala, extracts DNA from the plant specimens collected during the field training.
Four Black Hills State University students spent a week last month collecting and analyzing the DNA of a rare plant as part of a summer science program designed to engage students and create interest in field and lab sciences.

The program was geared toward promoting Native American interest in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields.

The program was part of a more than $5,000 seed grant from the South Dakota Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCOR) received by Dr. Urla Marcus, director of the BHSU Center for American Indian Studies. The science program, designed to be an orientation to biological field studies and an introduction to genetic lab work, was a collaboration between three of BHSU’s research centers: the Center for American Indian Studies, the Center for the Conservation of Biological Resources, and the Black Hills State University Herbarium. Three of the four participating students are American Indian. ­­

“The program helped me become more knowledgeable about plants, the Black Hills and lab methods such as experiencing how to do PCR,” said Lindee Lawrence, biology major from Eagle Butte. Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) is an important research technique used to amplify a specific region of DNA in order to read its sequence.

The students along with Dr. Benjamin Van Ee, BHSU assistant professor of botany, collected specimens of the rare plant species Pyrola picta, a perennial herb often called white-veined wintergreen or whitevein shin leaf. Through their field training, the students used GPS technology to locate populations of Pyrola picta and a taxonomic key, a book used to figure out unknown species, to identify morphological features of the collected plant samples.

Another component of the week-long program was a lab portion where students extracted and sequenced DNA from the plant specimens collected during their time in the field. Many of the Pyrola species are difficult to identify based on morphological features alone, so the DNA sequencing will aid in identifying the plants after the students compare the DNA sequences of the samples they collected to those deposited in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) database, according to Van Ee. Plant specimens collected by the students were deposited into the permanent collection of the Black Hills State University Herbarium, the most active and rapidly growing repository of plant specimen data in the state. The students conducted lab work in the state-of-the-art molecular laboratory facilities of the Center for the Conservation of Biological Resources, located in the new Life Sciences Lab building.

During the program, the students also helped Dr. Kara Keeter, BHSU assistant professor of physics, with physics activities for a group of students from Crow Creek High School.

“I really enjoyed this experience,” Katerina Griffin, biology major from Sheldon, Iowa, said of the science program. “I loved being in the lab and educated on the plants. (Dr. Van Ee) inspired me to do better and this program made me want to work harder.”

 Van Ee said activities like the ones the students participated in during the science program are a great way to engage students and create interest in field and lab sciences. He currently has another EPSCOR seed grant under consideration to continue field and lab research with Native American high school students aimed at stimulating them to pursue college studies in STEM fields. Van Ee is also working on a National Science Foundation (NSF) research proposal that includes significant support for undergraduate research at BHSU, including student stipends and funds for doing plant collecting in Africa.

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